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Canadian baseball’s lefty leanings linked to national game

Minnesota Twins' Justin Morneau bats during the fifth inning of a spring training baseball game against the Tampa Bay Rays, Saturday, March 3, 2012, in Fort Myers, Fla.

David Goldman/AP

When Canada begins play in the World Baseball Classic on Friday, it will field a roster featuring 13 players who throw right-handed and bat left-handed.

That number compares with two Americans, one Mexican and three Italians who throw right and bat left – and among the last, pitcher John Mariotti grew up in Woodbridge, Ont.

And the anomaly isn't limited to the WBC: Last year, Baseball Canada showed 11 Canadian position players on Major League rosters and, of those, six hit left-handed and one was a switch-hitter.

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What gives?

The answer, experts believe, is that most quintessentially Canadian pastime – hockey.

"Most of the conversation revolves around the dominant hand and its position on the bat and/or hockey stick," says Gord Ash, former general manager of the Blue Jays and now assistant GM with the Milwaukee Brewers.

"There is constant debate on the role of the top hand or bottom hand as it relates to power."

Most naturally right-handed tykes starting out in hockey will hold the stick with the left arm extended down the shaft and with the right hand at the top, under the tape. The majority of sticks sold in Canada are left-handed. When youngsters pick up a baseball bat, it feels natural to keep the left hand on top of the right hand and, thus, hit left-handed. The right hand goes to the nob.

"There are more left-handed shooters," says Canadian slugger Justin Morneau. "Your dominant hand is on the top end of your stick, so you shoot that way and you hit that way."

For the Canadians, this presents something of a problem as they take the field this weekend in Arizona to face Italy, Mexico and the United States on consecutive days. The meat of the Canadian order – Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds, Mr. Morneau of the Minnesota Twins, Michael Saunders of the Seattle Mariners – all throw right and bat left. Since left-handed batters generally have more trouble hitting left-handed pitchers, opponents can exploit the imbalance by starting a lefty and using lefties out of the bullpen. Two potent right-handed hitters were lost to Team Canada when Pittsburgh's Russell Martin dropped out of the WBC and Toronto's Brett Lawrie was forced out with an injury.

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"They know that Canada will usually have six to eight left-handed batters in the lineup and the same thing occurs at the junior level," says Jim Baba, director general of Baseball Canada. "The first couple of games in a tournament [when opponents can set pitching rotations strategically], we know what's coming most of the time. We're going to see their best left-handers."

Baseball economist and author J.C. Bradbury detected Canada's lefty leanings a few years ago and pitched a theory that the farther people are away from the equator, the more likely they are able to go about life left-handed, but discarded it for a more rational explanation.

"I think it's pretty clear that hockey is the answer, and that my geographic determinism theory was a product of my overactive imagination," says Mr. Bradbury, an associate professor of economics at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

Hockey's hold isn't limited to baseball – there are reportedly more left-handed golfers in Canada than elsewhere too, at about 7 per cent of the population – and its early influence apparently runs deep. Andy O'Brien of Calgary, a renowned strength and fitness trainer whose clients include hockey stars Sidney Crosby and Hayley Wickenheiser, is an expert in biomechanics. He explains that the body develops an "adaptive response" to shooting a puck left-handed, which translates to the baseball swing.

"As a left-handed shot, you are constantly rotating to the right with your spine," he says. "A range of motions occur in that response. You develop more flexibility and stability with that movement. The body takes the path of least resistance."

Mr. O'Brien points out that the capacity to hit a baseball with power has more to do with the spine, the legs and the torso than the hands. Hands grip the bat loosely. Slow-motion replays of a home-run swing will often show the hitter with one hand on the bat on contact.

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Four Canadian-born players have hit 200 big-league home runs: Mr. Morneau (204), Jason Bay (211), Matt Stairs (264), and Larry Walker (383), who is serving this week as the Team Canada hitting instructor. Mr. Votto, a former National League MVP, is well on his way, with 133.

All but Mr. Bay throw right and bat left. Messrs. Morneau, Stairs, Walker and Votto They all played hockey, as did Corey Koskie, who hit 124 home runs before post-concussion syndrome forced his retirement.

All of this raises the question: Why do right-handed hockey players shoot left in the first place?

"The top hand is the power hand, and that's where everything starts with technique," says Corey McNabb, senior manager of hockey development with Hockey Canada. "The hand that most people use to write with has the finer motor skills, and on a stick, the top hand becomes the motor hand."

To poke-check or to handle the puck, the top hand is more critical than the bottom hand, so for many right-handers, the left hand goes to the bottom.

Mr. McNabb points out that many natural goal scorers have been right-handed people with right-handed shots, and wonders whether more youths should be influenced to play that way.

And Mr. Baba says Baseball Canada is experimenting with a program to turn more throw-right, bat-left players into switch hitters at a developmental level – and field more balanced lineups in future world tournaments.

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